Altars or Cities
There are two lines which thread their way throughout the Scriptures from beginning to end, the line of faith and the line of unbelief. Possibly nowhere else in the Bible are these two lines seen in such distinctiveness as in the book of Genesis. Now as far as the record of that book goes, and apart from two exceptions, men built only two things. Those two things are altars and cities. On the line of faith, men built altars and on the line of unbelief, they built cities. The only two exceptions are the tower of Babel (see Gen. 11: 4, 5) and the house that Jacob built (see Gen. 33: 17). Apart from that you will find that there are six named cities which are specifically said to be built (Enoch, Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, Resen and Babel—see Gen. 4: 17; 10: 11-12; 11: 8-9) and there are seven altars—Noah builds the first, Abraham builds four, Isaac builds one and finally Jacob builds the last (see Gen. 8: 20; 12: 7; 8; 13: 18; 22: 9; 26: 25; 35: 7).
The Meaning of Altars and Cities
The epistle to the Hebrews is not written to “the twelve tribes which [are] in the dispersion” as is the epistle of James (see James 1: 1). Instead it is addressed to those who are Hebrews—that is, those who are moving in the same footsteps as “Abram the Hebrew” (Gen. 14: 13). Now in chapter 13 of Hebrews, two things are said regarding the saints of this dispensation. The first is “we have an altar” (v10), and the second is “we have not here an abiding city, but we seek the coming one” (v14). That, dear reader, is the simple position in regard to Christianity: we have the altar but we wait for the city.
So what does the altar represent, and what does the city represent? The meaning of a thing comes out very often in the first few times it is mentioned in Scripture. Cain builds the first city and calls it after the name of his son, Enoch (see Gen. 4: 17). Then you get the full thought of Babel when men come together and say “Come on, let us build ourselves a city … and let us make ourselves a name” (see Gen. 11: 4). The city has the idea behind it of the establishment of the greatness of man here in this scene. It is the idea of setting up. The altar is the very reverse: it is the idea of giving up. When the apostle Paul spoke about all that he was naturally after the flesh, having been circumcised the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin and so on, he lays it all on one side and gives it all up in order that he may gain Christ (see Phil. 3: 4-8). That is the line of the altar, the line of giving up. It is the line of sacrifice with the heavenly city in mind (see Rev. 21: 10). If you have the light of the city that comes down from heaven in your soul you will be prepared to give up everything here. Abraham looked for a city whose builder and maker is God (see Heb. 11: 10), and that is the position today: we have the altar, but we are waiting for the city.
Noah and his Descendants
The first altar is the altar built by Noah. There are no altars, as far as Scripture speaks, before the flood, but when the waters of judgment had passed over this scene and Noah comes out of the ark—incidentally, Noah is not said to build the ark—he builds an altar. He offers up as burnt offerings every clean animal and every clean bird and it says “Jehovah smelled the sweet odour” (Gen. 8: 21). I think this is the only altar (apart from the last one of Abraham’s) on which the sacrifice is mentioned. Now I wonder if you or I have built such an altar yet? If you are clear in your soul as regards salvation from the judgment of God by faith in the work of Christ then you should build that altar. I think it may suggest the sort of altar which saints build when they come together entirely clear of the judgment of God to remember the Lord Jesus and to show forth His death. This is an altar that you can never build in eternity, or in the world to come; it is an altar that can only be built now. The Lord Jesus says ‘remember me’ and in doing so you show forth His death, but you show it forth only until He comes (see 1 Cor. 11: 24-26). When the Lord Jesus comes there is no more remembrance; there is no more announcing His death—it is not needed then. But now, in this present time, there is the unique opportunity of building such an altar. In announcing His death, there is that which goes up and from which God smells a sweet-smelling savour, and which is delightful to His heart. Have you your part in it? It is something, as I say, that you can only do now.
After the flood we get the descendants of Noah, and the line of faith and the line of unbelief reappear. They come out in Shem on the line of faith and in Ham on the line of unbelief. Accordingly, Ham and his descendants are linked with a city, seeking to make something of themselves here in this scene. The men of faith in Genesis never actually build cities, although it can be seen that when they depart from the pathway of faith through weakness and failure they become linked with them. Abraham is the father of all them that believe (see Rom. 4: 16) and hence he is of particular interest to you and me as setting out the position from the start. He, as you know, departs from a city: he leaves Ur of the Chaldees behind. God gives him the light of the inheritance, the light of the land, and in that light, he builds two altars (see Gen. 12: 7, 8), even though “the Canaanite was then in the land” (v6). If you have the light of the inheritance in your soul then you are prepared to give up things here. By contrast, when saints seek to establish themselves in this scene they become earth-dwellers and are occupied with the trivial things of time which are soon to pass away. It is sad indeed when saints seek to be linked with cities rather than altars. I wonder how it is with you? Which line are you moving on? Are you are marked by the altar or are you marked by the city? Abraham was marked by the altar—not just in the number he built, but in his whole demeanour. God had placed the light of His inheritance into his soul—certainly, we have the light of the inheritance in the Scriptures, but God wants it to be in the soul as well. The light of the heavenly calling—the inheritance really—has all been secured for us by the death of Christ. Now if you come into an inheritance you come into it because someone else has died. In our case, it is the Lord Jesus who has died, and as coming into the light of that inheritance it is sufficient for the soul to be prepared to move on the line of the altar here, and not to seek a place in this scene—either for oneself, or for one’s children. In unbelief, Cain built a city and called the name of it Enoch, the name of his son (see Gen. 4: 17). By contrast, there is no thought of the perpetuation of man’s name in the altar—rather the altars are built to Jehovah and they have God in view.
Abraham and Lot
Abraham has a companion, Lot. He is a younger man and it seems that to start with he moves out in the pathway of faith with Abraham. Then, as moving in the path of faith, God brought a test. God always tests faith and if you and I are faithful in our movements here, seeking to please and honour God, then the test will come. It came with Abraham with the famine in the land and he failed the test. He went down to Egypt (see Gen. 12: 10). Abraham was recovered but I do not think the one he took down with him into Egypt was recovered: Lot was damaged. It is a serious thing if those of us who are older in years set our face toward the world in any measure for we may well carry others with us. The Lord in his mercy may recover us but those whom we take with us may not be so easily recovered. Abraham was recovered and came back “to the place of the altar that he had made there at the first” (Gen. 13: 4) and also built further altars afterwards, but Lot was damaged in his soul. So when both came out of Egypt, having acquired many things there, those things became a further test and caused a break in the fellowship. Similarly, if I bring the things of the world into the assembly or the household then I will cause problems in regard to fellowship. This is what happened with Abraham and Lot: they picked up things in Egypt which were going to cause great difficulty. All that property becomes a test between Abraham and Lot and caused separation. It is a sad thing when such things cause saints to divide (I must also add that Abraham acquired Hagar in Egypt too, and much trouble resulted from that as well—see Gen. 16, 17, 21). Now while God in His mercy may recover his people if they set their faces towards the world, in His governmental dealings there are still things that may have to be worked out. It is one of the divine principles set out in Scripture that if we sow to the flesh we reap from the flesh corruption, but if we sow to the Spirit then we reap eternal life (see Gal. 6: 8)—that is, something on the line of inheritance that has been secured by the death of Christ.
Lot took account of things. He had been in Egypt and he saw the plain of the Jordan watered not only “as the garden of Jehovah” but also “like the land of Egypt” (Gen. 13: 10, my emphasis) and he made his decision for the plain. He set his face towards Sodom and eventually we find him dwelling there. You see, Lot is no longer linked with the altar—it never says he actually built one of course—but he is no longer linked with it in anyway. Instead, he is linked with the city. Oh, dear friend, this is the way in which things go if we depart from the pathway of faith and set our face towards the world. Lot pitches his tents as far as Sodom, then we find that he is dwelling in Sodom and finally, he is in the gate of Sodom (see Gen. 13: 12; 14: 12; 19: 1)—an acknowledged part of the world system. Lot is a sad case, one of the saddest in Scripture. Eventually he has to be dragged out of Sodom by the governmental dealings of God, angels having been sent to take him out. Even when he is being dragged out, he says “this city is near to flee to, and it is small” (Gen. 19: 20). God allows it. Sometimes, even when God has allowed a crisis into our lives, we continue to hanker after things here, the things represented by the city. It is then that God in his government may allow our craving, even though it will not be for the prosperity of our souls at all. You find this in the case of Lot and the result is Moab and Ammon. Of Moab it says that he has “been at ease from his youth … he hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel” (Jer. 48: 11). He represents those who have no spiritual exercise at all, and want an easy path, a settling down here, content with things as they are. That is the line of the city; it is the line of Lot and it is the line of Moab his descendant. I press this point, because there is this natural tendency in each one of us to settle down here, and be content with things in this scene. It was not so with the early saints who were living and waiting for the Lord Jesus to come. They really treated this world as a wilderness; they realised that the Lord Jesus had been rejected and cast out here and so it was that they refused the world. Paul speaks in Phil. 3: 18, 19 of those who were enemies of the cross of Christ, and who minded earthly things. If the Lord Jesus has been refused a place here (and the cross is a stark picture of that fact) then I must not allow myself to have a place either. The Christian must move on the line of the altar—the line of giving up for Christ.
What is made known in the book of Genesis is filled out elsewhere. No saint in Genesis builds a city but at the beginning of Exodus, where saints are under the enemy’s influence entirely, you see that Israel builds store cities for Pharaoh, for the god of this world (see Ex. 1: 11). That is what happens when saints are swamped by the world. Lot is dragged out of Sodom—recovered, you might say, in some measure—but he does not appreciate the governmental intervention; he desires even a little city here, and the end is disastrous. Oh, to move in faith on the line of Abraham! Abraham is not dwelling in Sodom; he is not anywhere near Sodom. He is dwelling by the oaks of Mamre (see Gen. 13: 18), and there he builds another altar, confident in the promises of God (see vs. 14-17). Oh, to build these altars, to be in the light of the inheritance! To be as those who are waiting and watching for the Lord’s return and to build the altar here, happy to be nothing, and to be content to be jeered at and abused by this world! That is what happened to the Lord Jesus and we cannot expect anything better than He had.
Abraham and Isaac
In Genesis 22, we find Abraham building another altar. Now this Scripture is often taken up in relation to the Lord Jesus moving here in perfect harmony with His Father, even unto death. However, it can also be taken up in a much simpler way, viewing Abraham as one who is moving in the pathway of faith, and the blessedness of real fellowship between saints. Abraham is an old man now, while Isaac is certainly a very young man. Old people and young people do not naturally move together, but in Christianity it should be different. It says twice “they went both of them together” (Gen. 22: 6, 8). I wonder how it is among the people of God today: are the younger brethren moving with the older brethren, travelling in harmony and sympathy with them? That is the way we learn, by sticking close to those who are older in years. I know when we are younger we naturally seek our own company, but I do not learn from my own company. I learn from those who are older in years. This is true Christian fellowship—when nature can be set aside, as it were, and those who are older can move in perfect harmony with those who are younger. Now both Abraham and Isaac had deep spiritual exercises—think of all that must have been going through Abraham’s soul as he trod that pathway with Isaac, going up towards the mountain in the land of Moriah! He knew what God had said to him and he was prepared to carry it out—he was prepared to build that altar. It was the supreme test and he was able to meet it because he knew God could raise the dead. Isaac was also exercised. He took account of things intelligently. It is good if the young brethren can take account of things intelligently. Very often questions asked in a Bible study by those who are younger are of great help to others. Isaac was exercised in his soul, and he asked a pertinent question: “where is the sheep for a burnt-offering?” (v7). He knew what was needed, and he makes enquiry about it. Abraham gives him a spiritual answer. He does not say to Isaac (as he could well have done) that “you are going to be the offering my son!’ He does not give an answer that would have been damaging in any way to Isaac. He goes back, as it were, on his knowledge of God and says “God will provide himself with the sheep for a burnt-offering” (v8). Then it says again, “They went both of them together” (v8). How good if there is genuine enquiry by those who are younger, and if those enquiries are satisfied in such a way that fellowship is promoted, so that all the saints can move together in harmony! What happened earlier between Abraham and Lot stands in great contrast to this. Both had acquired much wealth, but sadly, all it created was friction and division (see Gen. 13: 7, 11).
Isaac and Jacob
Now just a little on Isaac and Jacob, each of whom built an altar. There is a deterioration as you come down from Abraham to Isaac and eventually Jacob. It is rather like the sowing in Matthew’s gospel producing “one a hundred, one sixty and one thirty” (Matt. 13: 23). You do not get the altars built with Isaac and Jacob as you do with Abraham. Isaac builds an altar but only after considerable spiritual exercise and failure. Now Abraham, you remember, went down into Egypt (see Gen. 12: 10). One of the marks of Abraham in Egypt was that he denied his true relationship (see vs. 11-20), and in the same way, if you or I drop down into the world then the first thing we deny is our relationship with Christ. You remember in Romans 7 it says that we are “to be to another, who has been raised up from among [the] dead” (v4), that is, the Lord Jesus. Abraham made the same mistake again in Genesis 20 when he sojourned in the land of Philistines and where he was once more less than honest about his relationships. Egypt is the world in opposition to God, while the Philistines, being descended from Mizraim, the founder of Egypt (see Gen. 10: 13–14), represent an unbelieving intrusion towards the Promised Land, hindering the true people of God coming into the gain of their spiritual inheritance. Now it always a great thing to take account of the history of the saints for we are to learn from what is past, and make sure, as walking humbly before God, that we do not make the same mistakes again. Sad to say, Isaac did not learn from his father’s history. He made Abraham’s mistake. Isaac went down (the word has a moral force) into Philistia, and would have gone down into Egypt, but for God stopping him: “Go not down to Egypt: dwell in the land that I shall tell thee of. Sojourn in this land; and I will be with thee and bless thee” (Gen. 26: 2, 3). It is important to take account of the original Hebrew at this juncture. He is to dwell (or tabernacle) in the land that God would tell him of, but only to sojourn (that is, live as a foreigner) in Philistia. Yet in verse 6, we find that Isaac dwelt in Gerar (where the verb dwell this time means to sit and be at ease). It is never a good thing for a saint to be at ease in a border land between the world and the land. Certainly he and his servants dig several wells, but Isaac is not at ease in his conscience, and after some show of contention, he surrenders them. Abimelech even says “go from us” (v16), but Isaac still lingers, dwelling at some distance from the city in the valley of Gerar (see v17). In v22, he tries to persuade himself that now “Jehovah has made room for us” but he immediately contradicts his words by his actions in going “up thence to Beer-Sheba” (v23, my emphasis). The word up clearly has a moral force, for “Jehovah appeared to him the same night” (v24, my emphasis) and in v25 Isaac “built an altar there, and called upon the name of Jehovah”.
Jacob is an even longer history than Isaac. Jacob says at the end of his days, when he is in the presence of Pharaoh, that he was not the equal of either his father Isaac or his grandfather Abraham. “Few and evil”, he had to admit, “have been the days of the years of my life” (Gen. 47: 9). Many years have to roll by before Jacob finally builds an altar. It may be as well to look at what leads up to this. After years of exile, Jacob is back in the land, and he journeys “to Succoth, and builds himself a house, and for his cattle he made booths” (Gen. 33: 17). Should he have been building a permanent place for himself and his possessions? The pathway of faith is what is set out in Heb. 11: 9: “By faith he” (that is, Abraham) “sojourned as a stranger in the land of promise as a foreign country, having dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with [him] of the same promise”. Unsurprisingly, despite his action, Jacob cannot settle. He moves on, and, as if to sanctify his poor state, he sets up an altar in Shechem (see Gen. 33: 20). However, this altar does not seem to have divine approval (notice that the Spirit of God does not say, as with all the other altars in Genesis, that he built it—a different Hebrew word is used instead). Jacob must first pass through the disaster of chapter 34, and then God tells him where to build an altar: “And God said to Jacob, Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there, and make there an altar unto the God that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother” (Gen. 35: 1). He must go up (again, the word has a moral force) to Bethel (‘the house of God’), and, unlike with the earlier altar, this one is to accompanied by a moral cleansing: And Jacob said to his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and cleanse yourselves, and change your garments; and we will arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar to the God that answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way that I went” (vs. 2, 3). Once the altar is built (see v7), God appears to Jacob (see v9) and reiterates the promises made to his father and grandfather. But how long it is in Jacob’s history before we arrive at this point! All the wheeling and dealing, deceiving and being deceived, is a record of so little progress, such that God has to eventually tell him to build an altar! I wonder how it is with you and me? How many altars are we building, and are we only brought to these things at the end of a long and eventful history of self-sufficiency?
Abraham looked for a city “which has foundations, of which God is [the] artificer and constructor” (Heb. 11: 10). No doubt Abraham took account of the cities of the plain as recognising that they were not going to last, and hence his faith was turned in another direction. Indeed it says of Abraham and all the others who “died in faith” that “God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God; for he has prepared for them a city” (vs. 13, 16). His faith will not be disappointed. The Lord Jesus says of Abraham that he “exulted in that he should see my day” (John 8: 56). That is not the day of the Lord’s humiliation, but the day of His glory and exaltation when He will ride as the true Joseph throughout Egypt and every knee is going to bow. Are we marked by similar faith? Are we looking for the city? As it says in Heb. 13: 14, “we have not here an abiding city, but we seek the coming one”. One cannot but help notice the emphasis that the Spirit of God places upon the foundations of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21. Abraham also looked for the city that had foundations. Again, the holy city comes down out of heaven from God, “having the glory of God” (v10). What a contrast to the cities that men are building here and seeking to establish! God ever works for His own glory: it all comes out in the heavenly city. Every little sacrifice that is made now, everything that has the character of an altar in it, is going to come out in glory then. Let us see to it therefore, that we are moving on the line of the altar in this scene, and are looking for the city in another scene!